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FAA taps experts to write rules for flying drones over people

Posted On: Mar. 8, 2016 12:00 AM CST

A task force of manufacturers, aviation industry associations and others who have a vested interest in small unmanned aircraft systems are meeting to determine an acceptable risk level when drones fly above people.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Feb. 24 that the aviation rulemaking committee, comprising 26 entities including AT&T Technologies, Intel Corp. and GoogleX, has until the end of the month to come up with recommendations for safely operating “certain” unmanned aircraft systems when flying over people or under a covered structure.

Last year the FAA was thinking of creating a new class of “micro” drones, any UAS less than 4.4 pounds and made out of materials that “break, distort or yield on impact,” to minimize damage if it crashed and struck a person or object. The intention was to allow micro drones to fly over people.

However, the FAA decided not to have weight as the defining factor.

Instead, a safe operation category will base UAS rules on performance criteria such as speed.

“Based on the comments about a 'micro' classification submitted as part of the small UAS proposed rule, the FAA will pursue a flexible, performance-based regulatory framework that addresses potential hazards instead of a classification defined primarily by weight and speed,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in the statement.

Some of the considerations in making the performance-based choices are current and past research on human injury thresholds, hazard and risk assessment methodologies and “acceptable levels of risk” for bystanders not involved in operating the drone, the statement said.

The committee has also been asked to figure out how manufacturers can prove a UAS meets the performance-based safety requirements and find ways for the FAA to verify that the UAS comply.

On Dec. 21, the FAA began requiring the registration of all UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds. Civil penalties for not registering a drone include a fine up to $27,500. Criminal penalties could mean fines of up to $250,000 and up to three years in prison.

Nearly 300,000 owners registered their drones within the first 30 days after the FAA's online registration went live. That system is only for hobbyists, but the agency is working to open it to commercial operators by March 21.